He is more than a changeup. As much as Johan Santana has made his career with the pitch that flutters and dips and moves in ways that sound like dance steps from the '50s, pigeonholing his success to one pitch would be unfair.
No, the craft goes deeper than the arm, its slot, its angle, its release point – all the technicalities that, important as they are, matter little in the scheme of what Santana has become.
He is undoubtedly the best pitcher in baseball and the single most influential person in the American League playoffs, and after helping carry the Minnesota Twins to the postseason, Santana is now is looking to boost them further because of how he uses his brain as much as his arm.
Three years ago, Santana was getting by on stuff as much as anything – on his 95-mph fastball, his slider with more tilt than a pinball machine and that changeup, which, even in its infancy, looked special. Problem was, he didn't know where the pitches were going, and neither did Twins catcher A.J. Pierzynski.
"So we made Pierzynski set up right down the middle," Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson said. "The ball would move around, and he began to understand himself. Then he went seven innings, then eight, and finally he was allowed to move when he wanted to. He knew himself."
As easy as the process sounds now, it was taxing at the time. The Twins knew what they might have in Santana when they stole him from the Houston Astros in the Rule 5 draft before the 2000 season, and they knew what they did have and simply needed to cultivate after some time in the minors and a breakout year in 2002.
"Two years ago, in his Cy Young run, I remember he had faced a hitter, made him look silly," Anderson said. "I said, 'What were you thinking when you did that?' And he said, 'I recognize what every hitter does to me on every pitch, and the next one, I work him.' You don't get that until late in your career. You don't notice that if a guy is quick on a fastball in you can get him with a changeup. Or to throw a fastball in when he's cheating on the changeup.
"For him to say that, it was like, 'Damn.' He's not just looking at a catcher's glove anymore and trying to hit it. He's got a purpose."
The purpose now is fairly straightforward. When Minnesota kicks off the 2006 playoffs hosting an AL Division Series game against Oakland at 1 p.m. ET on Tuesday, he will be on the mound, playing like Phil Hellmuth, looking for any sign, any tell – even the slightest tic – and letting his mind do all the work.
"When I'm on the mound, I do think," Santana said. "I think about winning a World Series."